My favorite piece of journalism so far this year was just published January 27th over at the New York Times and struck a nerve in a number of places. In an epic-length article entitled “The Follower Factory”, the NYT plumbed the wobbly world of Twitter and those peculiar, insecure users who boost their Follower head count by paying a company actual money to bless them with hundreds of thousands of automated “bot” accounts that pretend they’re fans clinging on to their every tweet, for the purpose of making the paying customers look more popular. Some are piecemeal accounts, with profiles barely filled out. Quite a few are the product of surface-level identity theft, cribbing photos and usernames but with a character altered to make it unique (relatively speaking). They don’t praise you, go forth in your name, act as your “street team”, or interact with you or other humans in any meaningful way. They just Follow. They sit there, shut up, and act like you rule.
Companies such as Devumi cheerfully offer low-price options for ordinary web-surfing rabble like me, but they also bank some major cash selling bot followings by the hundreds of thousands to B-list celebrities, politicians, creators, reality TV dwellers, and others at varying levels of fame. The NYT named a few names I recognize — actor John Leguizamo, Chef Michael Symon, onetime MST3K guest star Kathy Ireland, and film critic Richard Roeper, whose Chicago Sun-Times reviews have been suspended pending their internal review. Of those who responded to requests for comment, a few buyers insisted it wasn’t them personally pushing the buttons, but an assistant or social media manager who bought a hollow audience on their behalf for PR strategy or whatever. Whether their deflections are true or not, boosts of fake fame are kind of sad. Granted, some personalities receive perks and bonuses from their corporate overlords based on the looks of their social media metrics, which means a return on their invidious investment is entirely possible. To them I imagine it’s all part of the Game.